So you’ve inherited a difficult team to manage. No big deal, you’re full of optimism that you can make a positive impact and you’re armed with all your text book knowledge. You subscribe to some management groups on LinkedIn. You’ve got a good rapport with the HR team and and you get daily emails from online HR groups. Fresh from posting an inspirational leadership quote on your Facebook page, you’re feeling like you’re ready to take on the challenge. You’ve got this.
You’re armed and ready to tackle this group of “difficult” people; they say “difficult”, you say “misunderstood”. You go in with a caring and compassionate approach. After all, you don’t know what this team have been through before you arrived and you don’t want to pigeonhole them too early; everyone deserves a clean slate. They could have had a dragon of a manager before and all they needed was a little TLC.
Things start off fine, everyone is generally all smiles and pleasantries, apart from the grumpy one or two. Not to worry though, as you know you’ll be able to turn their frown upside down with your super-keen attitude and solution focused approach. They will jump on board the positive-change train for sure. They will just need a little time and some team collaboration exercises. They will learn to trust you and see you’re here to help them. Just like the Change Management lecturer said right?
WRONG! Really fucking wrong!
Next thing you know, your staff member tells you that they are going to kill themselves tonight because of you and storms out of the office, telling everyone with ears along the way. Or your staff member gets committed to a psychiatric unit for a month and blames you for it. Unbeknown to them, their performance history was abysmal and you had been tasked with performance managing out of the organisation. You had painstakingly been planning the best way to do it, while respecting them and maintaining their dignity throughout the process. You had been setting them fair, clear and reasonable organisational targets that they couldn’t or refused to meet. You had been agonising about it for weeks, thinking long and hard about how it would impact their financial situation, their family and impact their self-esteem. You had thought about the human side of this horrible business of performance management and let compassion prevail, even when the higher powers wanted you to get them out yesterday. So when the troubled staff member reacts in such an acidic way, it is a a god awful slap in the face and a punch in the guts at the same time. It’s like they forgot you were a human too.
So you spend the rest of the week (or month….or year) agonising about how you could have handled it better. How you could have helped them more. Making yourself sick with worry about how they are doing now and what they think of you? Did they realise that you are actually a good person who wanted nothing more than to help them succeed? Have they told everyone in the office what an evil, sadistic bitch you are? Do they understand what impact their emotionally immature reactions have had on you? Do they realise that they have changed you in a deep and profound way and made you lose every ounce of confidence you had?
Just when you think things will settle down because they are no longer around to leave their toxic vapours, then the rumours start. Everyone has heard some Chinese-whisper version of the “story” that has been told by the disgruntled ex-employee to everyone below the management ranks. You can feel everyone staring at you and then they quickly turn their heads and recommence typing. You can hear the gossip in office corners, before everyone instantly disperses when you enter the room. The silence is deafening, apart from the odd few who are bold enough to come and tell you what they “heard” to your face just to see your reaction. And if you’re really lucky, they will tell you what they think of you too.
The next thing you know you feel like the loneliest person on the planet. You’ve barricaded yourself in your office, locked the door and are trying to muffle your sobs. You can’t let “them” see what they have done to you and you can’t tell upper management as they will think you are weak and under-qualified. You go to HR, but they just give you the generic stock standard response.
You hate going to work and you feel like the victim of a faceless bullying campaign against you that you can’t even prove. You’re jumping at shadows and doubting every part of your being. You can’t eat. You can’t sleep. You’re going crazy and there is no one to ask for help. This is what I now refer to as Post-Traumatic Staff Disorder and it’s very real and it’s very distressing.
If this post is hitting a nerve and you can relate, I just want you to know that you aren’t crazy. This is a real thing, it happened to me and several other young, female managers that I know. The best advice I can offer you is to phone a friend who is also a young, female manager and have a good chat (cry) to her. Chances are, she’s had the same happen to her and can offer you some genuine understanding and support.
We have to stick together. You aren’t a failure. I believe in you.
I haven’t been able to find a Post-Traumatic Staff Disorder support group, but maybe we should start one?